Cultural Trade: an Important Bridge and effective connection along the Belt and Road


By Li Jiashan

The “Belt and Road Initiative” is the start of my friendship with Serbia. I first came to Serbia 10 years ago for the cooperation of cultural and creative industries between China and CEE countries. As a result, we successfully hosted the first China-CEEC Cultural and Creative Industry Forum in Belgrade in June 2016. At the end of the forum, we brought the Serbian-language version of the Bata Biography back to China. Then during the visit of President Xi to Serbia, he said, Yugoslav films such as Walter Defenses Sarajevo, The Bridge were released in China, stirring people’s patriotic feelings and accompanying the youth of our generation.  With our joint efforts and initiative, the Chinese version of Walter Forever was officially released at the Beijing International Book Fair in 2017. No matter the film or the book, both as cultural trade targets, they all play a unique role in the cultural exchanges and mutual learning between China and Serbia.

1. Cultural trade plays an unparalleled role in cultural exchanges and mutual learning among civilizations.

Cultural trade is carried out globally with international practices and market rule which is actually an international cooperation among the cultural industries of various countries. It is the mode of cultural exchange that best conforms to market rules and international trade. By applying the market mechanism, cultural trade can precisely reach the cultural demand side and create economic benefits while promoting cultural exchanges. Cultural exchanges and mutual learning is consisted of people’s thoughts, concepts and values, which is difficult to quantify directly. Cultural trade, on the other hand, can be measured in terms of trade volume and international market share which can reflect and verify whether the benefits generated by exchanges and mutual learning among civilizations are significant.

2. Characteristics of cultural trade development between China and Serbia.

First, the development of cultural economy plays an obvious role in promoting cultural trade.

The development of cultural economy is an important engine for the growth of cultural trade. With changes of economic structure and upgrade of industry in China, cultural trade occupies a more important position in the overall foreign trade. It is calculated that from 2020 to 2022, the proportion of cultural product exports in the total foreign trade has risen by 7.5%. The trade volume of cultural services is also increasing with the development of the cultural services economy. According to UNCTAD data, the export flow of cultural services increased by 64% from 2018 to 2022. Cultural services covering film and television, publishing, and performing arts have witnessed sound development in terms of commercial presence, overseas consumption, cross-border delivery, and natural person flow.

Statistics show that in 2023, Serbia’s creative industries will account for 5% of GDP. The value added of creative industries increased by 80% in 2020 compared to 2019 and 30% in 2021 compared to 2020,  while the number of employees also increased by 37% between 2016 and 2023, demonstrating the rapid recovery and continued growth of Serbia’s creative industries after the COVID-19 pandemic. Its cultural trade volume has been growing rapidly and continuously since 2010. In 2023, the total export volume of creative industries increased by 81% compared to 2019, accounting for 2.5% of Serbia’s total export volume. Exports grew even faster, and the deficit continued to shrink. The importance of cultural services is increasing, and the export value of cultural services has increased from 80 million US dollars in 2010 to 400 million US dollars in 2022, which has an obvious driving effect on Serbia’s cultural trade.

Second, the proportion of cultural trade between China and Central and Eastern Europe and between China and Serbia is constantly increasing. “Rather than geographical proximity, it is the proximity in demand that brings China and CEE countries together.” In terms of the overall trend, no matter what ups and downs China and CEECs have gone through, the importance of the cultural markets of the two sides has been rising, and the cultural trade between China and CEEC is highly complementary. From 2017 to 2022, the growth rate of cultural trade between China and CEECs has reached 173.7%, ranking third among the growth rates of cultural trade between China and CEEC.We also found that the proportion of Serbian exports to China in the Chinese cultural market increased rapidly from 2019 to 2022, and the proportion of Serbian imports of Chinese cultural products reached about 30% after 2019.

Third, the cultural tourism service trade between China and Serbia has great potential to develop.

According to the Report on the Impact of Creative Industries on the National Economy compiled by the Belgrade School of Economics, Serbia’s tourism industry accounts for 6 percent of its GDP. Most notably, according to UNCTAD data, since 2017, China has been able to enter Serbia visa-free. The amount of tourism services provided by Serbia to Chinese outbound tourists began to rise rapidly, from just $3 million in 2017 to more than $100 million in 2022. In 2023, Serbia received 4.193 million tourists, an increase of 8.4% over the previous year. Among them, 92,000 were Chinese, an increase of 182.7%; The number of overnight visits by Chinese tourists was 282,000, reached and increase of 51.4 percent.The Report on the Development of China’s Outbound Tourism (2023-2024) released by the China Tourism Academy pointed out that the number of Chinese outbound tourists in 2023 exceeded 87 million, and the number of outbound tourists is expected to be 130 million in 2024, and the development potential of China-Serbia cultural tourism service trade is huge.

Fourth, the types of cultural trade between China and Serbia are relatively simple. According to the data of UNCTAD, the cultural products imported by China from Serbia are mainly home decoration and daily necessities (CER023), accounting for more than 90%. While the cultural goods exported from China to Serbia are mainly fashion accessories (CER022), home decoration and daily necessities (CER023) and toys (CER025), accounting for 31%, 27% and 27% respectively. China and Serbia are rich in cultural resources with distinctive characteristics, and there is still much room for trade between the two countries in core cultural fields such as publishing, performance and software services.

3. The development of China-Serbia cultural trade is moving steadily toward the future.

The China-Serbia Free Trade Agreement is the first free trade agreement signed between China and Central and Eastern European countries. The signing of the China-Serbia Free Trade Agreement is an important practice to expand the network of high-standard free trade areas facing the world, an important outcome of the Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, and a good start for the new decade of the Belt and Road Initiative.

China and Serbia have the desire, the foundation and the space for cooperation in cultural industries. The Chinese-English version of Rediscovered: An Overview of the Cultural and Creative Industries between China and Central and Eastern European Countries was officially released in Belgrade, marking the first time for the study of cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European countries in the cultural and creative industries. The Chinese-Serbian version of the Standard for the Brief Introduction of the 100 Classics of Beijing Opera lately added new content to China-Serbia cultural exchanges.

There were no roads in this world at the very beginning. The ancient Silk Road connected human civilizations among Asia, Europe and Africa through trade. It was merchants who spread the cultures of their respective countries along with the spices and seeds they brought to other countries. As time went by, more people walked along the track, and it became a road. Today, when we are advancing the high-level development of the Belt and Road Initiative, we cannot do without the spread of culture and dialogue among civilizations. Cultural trade will surely give full play to its unique advantages and become an important link for effectively connecting the Belt and Road Initiative. “No matter how far apart we are, as long as we take the first step bravely and stick to the same direction, we will find a path of mutual understanding and common development and lead to happiness, tranquility, harmony and beauty.”


The author Li Jiashan is the professor of Beijing International Studies University , the Executive Dean of  National Institute for Culture Development , and the Expert & Secretary General of the National Research Center for International Cultural Exchange ( Cultural Trade).